One of the hardest tasks at the workplace is motivating employees to perform well at their jobs. Salary alone often isn’t enough to push them to excel. Many people lose motivation when a task lacks personal benefit or is unpleasant.¹
So how do we guide employees to a higher level of productivity? It starts by understanding what does and doesn’t motivate people. If we can create a workplace environment that actively cultivates a sense of motivation, we can boost productivity to new heights.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
In psychology, motivation is a surprisingly complex concept. Let’s start with the simplest model: intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
When you’re intrinsically motivated, you want to perform an activity or complete a task simply because you enjoy doing it.²
Think of things like hobbies. For example, some people intrinsically enjoy crossword puzzles. They like solving problems and feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish a puzzle.³ But people who lack intrinsic motivation for a task won’t enjoy the process in the same way. They might find crosswords tedious and frustrating, and they won’t complete one purely for enjoyment.
Danielle MacInnes / Unsplash
In contrast, extrinsic motivation involves completing a task to get a reward.⁴ Often this reward is something concrete, like money. But it can also be more abstract, like gaining social approval or avoiding punishment.⁵ For example, you might find filing paperwork boring, but you do it anyway so that your boss won’t get angry.
Overall, studies suggest that intrinsic motivation is more effective at increasing workplace productivity. Overemphasis on extrinsic motivation may increase stress and risk of burnout, while intrinsic motivation promotes enthusiasm and optimism.⁶
But other researchers argue that extrinsic factors like money and praise can be effective motivators, as long as intrinsic motivation isn’t compromised.⁷
The intrinsic-extrinsic model is a good starting point for understanding motivation. But in reality, the dynamics of motivation are a bit more complicated.
Self-determination theory, or SDT for short, is a more nuanced model of motivation. It expands on the intrinsic-extrinsic model by describing how our social environment affects motivation. It’s especially useful for assessing and improving employee motivation in the workplace.
Marvin Meyer / Unsplash
According to SDT, we feel intrinsically motivated when 3 key psychological needs from our social environment are met.⁸ If one or more of these needs aren’t met, we’re not performing our best. We may only feel extrinsically motivated, with no intrinsic interest or engagement in the task.⁹ Or we may lack any motivation at all.¹⁰
Let’s explore these 3 factors and how we can promote them in a workplace environment.
Competence describes our need to feel capable of performing the tasks we’re asked to do.¹¹ We feel competent when we know how to complete a task. We understand the process and strategies that we need to use, and we’re confident in our own skill and ability.¹² It’s easier to feel motivated when you know what you’re doing.
Brandon Lopez / Unsplash
Strategies for a competent workplace:
Give positive feedback and constructive criticism frequently.¹³
Develop training programs to ensure that employees understand their tasks.¹⁴
Encourage workers to give their own feedback and communicate openly with supervisors.¹⁵
Relatedness refers to our need to feel socially connected to the people around us.¹⁶ When we feel cared for and accepted by our community, we’re more intrinsically motivated to support this community through our work.
This effect might even extend outside of our immediate group of colleagues. One study found that employees were more intrinsically motivated and creative when they perceived their company as more socially responsible.¹⁷
John Schnobrich / Unsplash
By sharing a common goal of improving society in some way, employees feel more socially engaged. As a result, they’re more motivated to problem-solve and generate creative solutions.
Strategies for enhancing relatedness:
Emphasize the meaningfulness of the company’s goals and tasks.¹⁸ What concrete goals are employees working together to achieve? Why is each person’s role important?
Structure tasks and work environments around collaboration and supportiveness, not competition.
Make leadership personal: encourage trust and personal connection between workers and leaders.¹⁹
As important as social connection is, it’s also essential for employees to feel a sense of independence and control over their own work.²⁰ No one likes to be micromanaged, and it’s hard to feel motivated when someone else is controlling every part of your job. Supervisors should provide direction and guidance, but creative decisions should be left to employees as much as possible.
Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash
Strategies for fostering autonomy:
Encourage employees to take their own creative direction and provide open-ended tasks.²¹
De-emphasize rigid deadlines as much as possible and allow people to set their own deadlines.²²
Promote a flexible working environment.²³ Be open to taking suggestions and experimenting with new approaches.²⁴
Motivation in the workplace isn’t just about giving out generous bonuses or strict punishments. By understanding the psychology of motivation, we can build work environments that foster creativity and productivity.
Shepperd, J. A. (1993). Productivity Loss in Performance Groups: A Motivation Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 113(1), 67-81. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.113.1.67
Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., Weibel, A., Dysvik, A., & Nerstad, C. G. (2017). Do Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Relate Differently to Employee Outcomes? Journal of Economic Psychology, 61, 244-258. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2017.05.004
Kuvaas et al. (2017)
Fischer, C., Malycha, C. P., & Schafmann, E. (2019). The Influence of Intrinsic Motivation and Synergistic Extrinsic Motivators on Creativity and Innovation. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00137
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182-185. doi:10.1037/a0012801
Visser, C. (2010). Self-Determination Theory Meets Solution-Focused Change: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness Support in Action. InterAction—The Journal of Solution Focus in Organisations, 2(1), 7-26.
Osborne, S., & Hammoud, M. S. (2017). Effective Employee Engagement in the Workplace. International Journal of Applied Management and Technology, 16(1), 50-67. doi:10.5590/IJAMT.2017.16.1.04
Hur, W., Moon, T., & Ko, S. (2018). How Employees’ Perceptions of CSR Increase Employee Creativity: Mediating Mechanisms of Compassion at Work and Intrinsic Motivation. Journal of Business Ethics, 153, 629-644. doi:10.1007/s10551-016-3321-5
Osborne & Hammoud (2017)
Deci & Ryan (2008)